Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 6 February 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Feelings of alienation

Understandably enough, given the constant emigration from this country over the last few decades, a constant theme in poetry by Sri Lankans has been the plight of the exile. Given the vast numbers of Tamils who have left, this is obviously more common in Tamil writers, and the forthcoming collection will reflect this. I will start here however with a poem by a Sinhalese writer now in Australia, Sunil Govinnage.

The poem comes from a collection called 'Memory Island', which in itself suggests the relation to his roots of the writer, who has also worked in Thailand. He was previously at the Institute of Fundamental Studies in Kandy, and has taught at Notre Dame University in Perth, where he works now for the Western Australian Civil Service.

Sunil Guvinnage

The poem is short and sharp, covering a lot of ground. The first verse highlights critically but economically the financial reasons for the exile that has been sought, the second lays down a phenomenon that would have been unthinkable at home, with its more leisured way of life, dirty dishes left out all day.

The emotive description of the music from 'one room', perhaps the poet's son's, suggests the different culture of this new world, emphasized by the male laughter in the daughter's room. After the reiteration of the daily grind, there is the delicate touch of the ridiculous decorations on equipment that have become a cult, extending to this country too. The poem then ends with recurrence of the word 'war', interpreted personally, to emphasize the sense of alienation and despair the emigrant life inculcates.

Tr. Ranjini Obeysekere

Like a parrot set free from someone's hand
I rushed home famished after work
For which I had sold my soul

In the kitchen a stack of stale dishes
Looks hideously at me.

Angry music
Makes war in one room
From my daughter's room
Comes the laughter of young men

I wash the sickly dishes
And start work in my house
A comic face hangs grinning
On the refrigerator

I turn on the TV to see
If the whole world
Is at war with me

Parvathi Arasanayagam

Parvathi Arasanayagam, who still lives in Kandy, is the daughter of Jean, one of our most distinguished poets, while her father too is an accomplished writer. She is a graduate of Peradeniya, and taught there briefly, though sometimes Orwellian requirements of our university system prevented her from continuing in service. Less ebullient than her wonderfully extravagant mother, she writes simply and perceptively of social issues as well as personal relations.

This poem contrasts very tellingly the romantic imaginings of emigrants with the harsh reality they often have to face. The juxtaposition of churches and coniferous woods recreates the world of picture post cards, but the woods are fog-laden and what is described as temperate is soon felt as chilling. Yet the land that has been left is registered as a wasteland, and paddy fields, normally evocative of familiar warmth, are seen as flooded, also unknown in their own way. Thus, though the fear of unemployment is noted, the emigrant puts his head down and works, excessively, looking for warm recesses, unwilling to abandon the hope that the new land might provide a home.


You wanted to escape
to a world of safety
a re-enactment of pictures
in cards sent by faithful
relatives, of spires,
churches and coniferous
woods in that temperate

It was a slow awakening,
it didn't take long to
see that it was a landscape
to be viewed from afar,
the waft of cedar from
gloomy fog-laden woods
alien and bare stifled
dead memories of
another wasteland.

Reaching that other country
was like treading unknown
rain flooded paddy fields
way back home,
you clutched your passport
like a prayer book and
hoped that you did not
slip under the murky depths
in a new land.

The statistics weren't too
comforting, unemployment
was on the rise and soon
you work three shifts
in order to survive,
you bow your head into
the warm recesses of winter
clothes and avoid public gaze
hoping that the chilling air
will thaw in this new found home.

But there can be worse things too. Christopher Francis, who writes under the pen-name Ki.Pi. Aravinthan, was a political activist who went to France as a refugee in 1991. He also writes short stories, and has edited the web journal Appaalthamil.

This poem deals with the racism that many emigrants have experienced. This was perhaps worst in France which was unlike Britain, where there was a long tradition of economically productive immigrants. That was the status of the majority of those, Sinhala as well as Tamil, who first went to Britain, whereas in France many of those who went initially were economically vulnerable. Even an intellectual like Francis then could have been the victim of general prejudice.

The poem vividly recreates the humiliation felt by immigrants who are the butt of disdain, and then transits swiftly to a defiant mood, which refers to the injustices of colonialism. The image then, of a tree cut and carried away from its native soil, is compelling, especially with the suggestion that the soil can never be removed entirely. But, after a plea for tolerance - since there cannot be love - the poem ends with a reiteration of the shame of the immigrant, suffering in freezing snow.

Tr. Kanchana Damodaran

Even my shadow cries out cringing, eyes lowered
in shame as eyes like those of a cat
strip me a shade lower than Black,
penetrating into the very marrow.
Oh, the blood isn't black....?
Disdain bubbles.

Hell for Africa is in its South
they say, how can those blackened by hell's heat
enter our circles, they ask...

The entry port to Hell was negotiated by Vasco de Gama
to discover Paradise for your cold worlds.

Who wants your Paradise?
I have not come to snatch it back.
But I cannot ever forget,
you are the ones who snatched our Paradise.

Before I could drink the waters,
spread my roots, become a tree
yielding shade and fruit,
sow seeds, become a grove,
I was felled, cut away from the soil of my roots
thrown as a tree without fruit into the frozen ice,
the soil around me was shaken off but
can the soil around roots be ever taken away?
The soul which survived the ancient flames of caste,
will it be singed now with the hot fires of race?
When and where was a foreigner ever loved?
But did we not tolerate you for three hundred years or more?
Now you should tolerate me just a little.

Even my shadow cringes and cries out
shame in my heart, I live
frozen in the snow

Obviously the stories are not as simple as all three poets suggest, and many of those who emigrated have done well. The next generation, as Govinnage indicates, has no essential reason to feel alienated, though that might not be true of those who are economically deprived and suffer discrimination. But in all three cases, the poets make those of us who remain reflect on what it was that has made so many of our people leave.


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